Climate and Us | Plan for the vulnerable: India's heat emergency must be humane

  • This year’s heat spell should have been an opportunity to document the health burden of heat and come up with a humane plan for persons most exposed to this slow disaster. The government must act now
The first thing to do is study the impact of the heatwave on both mortality and morbidity. (PTI) PREMIUM
The first thing to do is study the impact of the heatwave on both mortality and morbidity. (PTI)
Published on May 17, 2022 03:23 PM IST
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ByJayashree Nandi

Oppressive heat is experienced differently by each one of us and that may be why the government’s response to extreme heat has been slow and patchy so far. India’s spring heatwave spell, when maximum temperatures went up to 46-47 degrees Celsius over several parts of northwest, central, and east India, made the global scientific community take note of the unprecedented event.

The World Weather Attribution (WWA) network, a global collaboration of leading climate scientists who work on analysing whether a particular extreme weather event is linked to the climate crisis, will submit findings of their study on this year’s spring heatwave in India and Pakistan (in March and April) within the next fortnight. WWA is expected to sum up the extent to which the climate crisis may have contributed to such an unprecedented heatwave event. WWA’s statement will be significant to recognise India’s vulnerability to extreme climate disasters.

But, we need much more than that now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, earlier this month, chaired a meeting on heatwave preparedness where he directed states and districts to come up with heat action plans. The urgency of developing heat action plans will never be understood until officials study how different people in different regions experience extreme heat. On days when the maximum temperature is beyond 45 degrees Celsius, the heat takes a heavy toll on the health of people on the margins of society.

To understand how domestic workers experience heat, I asked some women in Govindpuri’s slums to describe what they did to survive the heat. Most of them said they experienced low blood pressure, possibly linked to dehydration and throbbing headaches. Some of them longed to be in the air-conditioned homes of their employers, while some desperately needed a break from their work.

Of the women I spoke with, Renu Singh, a migrant worker from Bihar faces multiple challenges because she is also a caregiver to her son who has cerebral palsy. “I leave him for hours during afternoon hours in extreme heat. He cannot even drink water himself. What if he feels completely dehydrated?,” asked Renu, while she has been dealing with dizzy spells on hot days for the past two months. Both of them cannot sleep well at night because they have to sleep by the door so that at least a little bit of air from outside keeps them cool. They have a tiny desert cooler that can only help them during spells of dry heat. Most women also avoid drinking too much water because they may not have access to toilets where they work and public toilets are usually far away. Just getting to the public toilet can lead to a heat stroke.

Renu, however, points out that they are far better off than their family in Bihar who has to work outdoors no matter what. More than half of India may be experiencing a traumatic summer as the government chalks out how to deal with the crisis. 

The first thing to do is study the impact of the heatwave on both mortality and morbidity. The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)’s study for some heat-affected states shows a clear correlation between the increase in the total number of deaths when maximum temperatures spike above 40 degrees Celsius. But when it comes to surveillance, NCDC is particular about the diagnosis of exclusion to determine if a death was only due to heatstroke or not. “We use a checklist to exclude any other conditions that may have caused the death. That is how surveillance works,” said Dr Aakash Shrivastava, National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health at NCDC during a heat stress training for journalists last week. Expectedly, NCDC has found only seven deaths linked to spring heatwave in India.

But for anyone tracking heat stress in India, it's common knowledge that heat first kills those with co-morbidities — the elderly and infants are at great risk. Hence, a strict criterion of exclusion may not always work. It's also understandable that with a lack of resources, India’s public health system is in a precarious state and cannot spare people to track the overall public health burden of heat.

This year’s heat spell should have been an opportunity to document the health burden of heat and come up with a humane plan for persons most exposed to this slow disaster. India will need cooling shelters; staggered work timings; cool roofs in slums; retrofitted architecture for passive cooling and a robust public health system to deal with the spike in heat-related illnesses and deaths. Time is running out.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, July 04, 2022